December 30, 2022

Update Link: Invisible Strings – Part 13

The really nice thing about winter break is that it’s the only break long enough where I feel like I get to really relax and enjoy myself. The four day breaks are really just trying to catch up on rest and chores left incomplete or rushed. Most of the major tasks around the house are done (the ones I wanted to get to) and I’m trying to slowly prep for next week so that I’m not rushing around on Monday. Hope everyone else is having a good holiday season!

I’m almost ready to dig into FMT Book 2 on January 1, and I’m cautiously excited about it, lol. It’s a different time period than I’ve been working on for most of the year — I started the year with Mad World, set in 2003/04, and between Counting Stars, Signs of Life, and Kismet, I’ve spent most of the year in 1997-2000. Outside some flash fiction working in 2007, it’s almost a relief to fast-forward to 2018, so I don’t have to worry too much about anachronisms, lol.

The next set of chapters in Counting Stars has a pre-9/11 activity that I wonder if younger readers will even notice — someone goes all the way to the gate at the airport to watch take off. (Think of that Friends episode with Chandler, Janice, and Yemen). That’s been gone for twenty years, and it was such a staple of ’90s television and movies! It’ll be nice not to have to watch myself so much.

Hope you guys are enjoying these brief daily updates! See you tomorrow!

This entry is part 13 of 22 in the Flash Fiction: Invisible Strings

Written in 63 minutes.

Cameron climbed up the railing of the fence until he could rest his elbows over the top, Jason with a steadying hand on his back until he was sure Cameron had his balance. It was nearly the end of the summer now, the hottest days of August dragging into September when the nights, at least, would begin to cool off.

After three months on the ranch, Cameron had grown an inch and his face had begun to slim down, sliding slowly from baby to child. He’d already changed so much from the small child who had been curled up in his mother’s lap that day in late May. His bright blue eyes were focused on what was happening in the middle of the paddock — since the first day Elizabeth had begun to work with the horses, Cameron had haunted their every step, all but obsessed with the stables.

Elizabeth had worked wonders with the stallion over the last few weeks, and if she’d been an experienced rider, it’d be her up on his back right now. And it should be Jason, he thought with some regret, but the horse needed to be worked daily and he still had four months left until a new sheriff could be sworn in. So, instead, Elizabeth stood at the bridle, keeping the horse calm and Johnny had swung up into the saddle.

She smiled and laughed up at the stable hand, and Jason ignored the stab of irritation in his stomach. Not jealousy, he knew, but simple envy that Johnny had the freedom to spend all day at the ranch. His grandmother had meant well, and sometimes, Jason hadn’t minded spending long hours in town, but over the last few months, every morning he woke and had to ride away from the ranch—and his family, he acknowledged—he resented it more.

“I wanna ride the big horse,” Cameron told Jason. “Papa, make Mama let me.”

“Not yet,” Jason cautioned his son—and that was getting easier, he thought. To just look at the child and feel the warmth, the sense of posession. He hadn’t known Cameron as a baby, hadn’t been part of creating him, but through a benevolent quirk of fate, he’d have the raising of him. He ruffled Cameron’s blond hair. “And not on one that big. Not to start.”

Cameron scowled, then looked back at Elizabeth as she led Dusty around the training yard, Johnny simply letting the horse get used to his weight. She’d worked with other horses in the stable, Jason knew, and had knack for it, but Dusty was her favorite. He looked forward to the day he could give the horse to her as a gift.

“I scooped the poop,” Cameron said darkly, drawing Jason’s attention. His mouth was turned up in a sulk. “You said I scoop poop, I ride.”

“I said if you learned to take care of the horses, you’d be able to learn when the time came—” Jason sighed. And he was putting off the inevitable. Cameron was mad for horses, just as he’d been. He cupped his hands around his mouth so that his voice would carry across the yard. “Elizabeth!”

She turned towards them, her brows raised.

“We’ll be in the stables,” he told her, and she raised a hand in recognition, then looked back at the horse.

Jason lifted Cameron off the fence and set him on the ground. “Come on. I’ve got something to show you.”

“Not more poop,” the little boy muttered, but he put his hand in his father’s and followed him happily. The only place Cameron liked more than the stables was the lake, and they’d already spent the morning swimming. After a few more floating sessions, Cameron had advanced quickly and now moved through the water like a fish. It had taken he—and his mother—barely three months to shed the remnants of their city life.

Jason stopped in front of a stall and lifted Cameron to sit on the railing of the empty stall next door, then curled Cameron’s hand around the post to keep his balance. “Stay there for a minute, all right?”


Jason unlatched the stall and took the reins of the pony that sat inside. She was a brown mare, no more than thirteen hand height—Jason was taller—but she still towered over Cameron by more than double his size. “In another year two or two,” he said, “or when you’ve grown another foot,” he clarified, “this is Cinder. She’ll be yours.”

Cameron’s eyes were wide. “You—mine?” he asked, almost breathless. “My horse?”

“Cinder is a pony,” Jason said. “She’s six, and she’ll take good care of you until you’re old enough for a horse.” He tipped his head to the tack room. “Come on, I’ll show you how to saddle her. You start taking care of some of her chores. And maybe your mother can show you how to walk her. Never alone,” he told Cameron, looping Cinder’s reins over the post so that he could set Cameron on his feet. He crouched down, met the boy’s eyes. “It’s very important that you follow the rules so you can keep yourself and Cinder safe. You’re not old enough or tall enough yet to be on your own with the horses.”

Cameron nodded soberly. “Mama said so. And you said so. Rules. But—” His shining eyes looked at the horse again. “But I can see her. And I scoop her poop. It’s okay. I’ll do it.” He threw his arms around Jason’s neck. “Thank you, thank you, thank you. I’ll be good. I’ll be the best.”

“You already are.” Jason squeezed Cameron back, then got to his feet. “Come on. I’ll show you how to saddle a pony and then we’ll try her out.”

Johnny swung a leg over Dusty’s back and hopped to the ground, then swept off his hand, his brown hair plastered to his head with sweat. “He sure does take the energy out of you,” he said, stroking the side of Dusty’s belly.

Six weeks earlier, the horse might have reared up or bit Johnny for the audacity, but the horse just stood calmly by, enjoying the way Elizabeth stroked her hands down his long head.

“He’s eager to please,” she told Johnny. “You can see it, can’t you? It’s why he took so long to trust us—”

“To trust me.” Johnny plopped the hat back on his head. “You had him at the first word.  But yeah, I get that. Old Man Coleman did a number on him and horses ain’t that different from people, you know. You smack them around enough, they start flinching from everyone.” He spat at the ground. “But that’s enough for him today, I think—” He turned and looked across the yard. “And you don’t want to miss that—”

Elizabeth turned to follow Johnny’s outstretched arm and her eyes lit up. Jason was entering the training yard, one hand fisted around a leading string and the other resting lightly on the back of a saddle. And her son, Cameron, in the saddle on the back of the sweet pony she’d looked after a time or two since her work in the stables had begun. His grin was wide, his little hands tightly curled around the pommel.

“I wondered when he’d put the little guy up on Cinder,” Johnny said, folding his arms, smiling himself. “Your boy is crazy for these horses, you know.”

“He’s crazy for everything about Jason. Fishing, swimming, horses—he wanted to be a sheriff for a whole week,” Elizabeth murmured. “But yes, the horses seem to be sticking. And of course, the pony is a perfect size for Cameron to learn on. I’d wondered why Jason had a pony in the midst of all the others—”

“Oh, he’s had Cinder for a few years now.” Johnny’s expression sobered. “Bought him just after the nephew took his first steps. Right out there by the fences, did you know?” he said to Elizabeth who blinked at him.

“No, I didn’t—”

“Always felt bad for the kid,” Johnny continued. “The brother—AJ—married some socialite from San Francisco, and he never liked being west of the mountains. Spent all his time back at the company offices in town. But the old man—Edward Morgan—” Johnny clarified, “— made it clear that the heir would stay here. Hell of a thing — they were in town just for a week and caught that cholera.” He cleared his throat. “Anyway, Jason brought Michael out here every few weeks and bought that there pony for him. Kid never got to use it.”

Elizabeth’s heart ached for the loss. What would she do if she lost her baby? “I’m surprised he didn’t sell the pony.”

“Nah, couldn’t bring himself to do it. But it’s good that he kept her on. He spent a lot of time making sure it was a good, calm pony,” Johnny told Elizabeth. “Your boy will be safe and sound.”

“I know—” Elizabeth exhaled slowly, then looked back at Dusty, giving the horse one last stroke. “You mind putting him up for the afternoon?”

“Not at all, missus. You go enjoy your boy.”

Before the day Jason put Cameron up on Cinder, the little boy had been equally obsessed with every horse in the stable. After, all his attention was pointed at his horse (it didn’t matter how many times it was explained to him that she was a pony and that was different). He woke up, and raced through his breakfast so he could help Johnny or who ever was working that morning feed Cinder. And then he helped clean out her stall, and if there was time, Johnny or Jason showed him how to put the saddle on her—and how to care for it.

And every night before Elizabeth tucked him in for bed, Cameron insisted on being measured because if he could just get to forty-eight inches, Papa would let him actually start riding lessons.

One night, as September drew to a close, Cameron pouted and demanded she measure again. “You’re wrong,” he told her crossly. “I’m four and a half. Papa said.”

“That doesn’t mean you’ve grown, darling,” Elizabeth said, but dutifuly lined him up against the door frame of his bedroom and made a mark where his head rested. “Look. Just the same.”

Cameron’s lips stuck out, and his eyes were damp. “I’ll never be big enough.” The tears slid down his cheeks and he sniffled.

“Sweetheart—” Elizabeth sighed, smoothed his hair back. “You know if you were ready, Papa would let you start lessons.”

“I-I know—b-b-but you get to ride—a-and y-your h-horse is m-much—” Cameron’s words came out in scattered sobs as he sank to the ground and put his head against his knees. “Just wanna to be big.”

Elizabeth sighed and spied Jason climbing the last set of stairs. “I’m taller than you, my love—”

“Not a lot,” he sniffled. And that was true—but she was still a foot and a half taller than him, even at five foot four. “I wanna ride.”

“You get to—”

“Led around like a baby.” Cameron raised his head, angry now. “Not a baby! No more!” He glared at Jason who had joined them. “Papa, I big enough.”

Elizabeth made a face and silently shook her head at Jason who crouched down. “Not yet, Cam,” he told him. “You need to be tall enough to reach the stirrups. It’s not about  being old enough. You’re not a baby. But if your feet can’t reach, you can’t tell Cinder when to stop. Or how to slow down or speed up.”

Cameron furrowed his brow at Jason’s sensible words. “Stirrups,” he repeated, testing out the word. “Where your feet go.”


“My—” He stretched out his legs. “Legs not long.”

“Not enough. Not yet. We’re checking every night, aren’t we?” Jason told him. He lifted Cameron into his arms. “And you know the second you’re ready, Mama will tell me. She likes riding. She wants you to learn.”

“You do?” Cameron asked, peeking at his mother over Jason’s shoulder. “Really?”

“Really. I’m not good enough to leave the paddock just yet, either,” she reminded, following them inside the room, watching as Jason set Cameron in his bed. “But next spring or summer, maybe we’ll all be ready. And we can go riding together.”

Cameron nodded. “Okay. Okay.” He swiped at his eyes. “My feet tell Cinder what to do?”

“Yes, in part,” Jason told him. “It’s important. You don’t want to confuse her, do you?”

“No.” He sniffled again, then heaved a shuddering sigh. “Okay.” He looked at his mother. “Sorry, Mama.”

“It’s okay, love.” She finished the bedtime ritual of tucking him in and switching off the light. Then she and Jason went across the hall to their bedroom. “It’s going to be a longer winter,” she predicted. “He’s not going to add that last six inches for a while.”

“It’s all right,” Jason said easily, drawing her into his arms. “He can ride with me in the spring, and I’ll take you both into the mountains.” He nuzzled at her neck, the soft skin just beneath her ear. She closed her eyes, swaying slightly in his arms. “But we still need to get you through your first Colorado winter.”

“Mmm, well, I’ve been through a winter in upstate New York,” Elizabeth reminded him. “So I’m not scared.”

“Good. And I know what we can do when it gets too cold,” Jason said, the corner of his mouth turning up with that wicked light in his eyes. She grinned, then laughed when he picked her up and tossed her onto the nearby bed.

Summer didn’t give up its hot, sweaty grip on the days until the first weeks of October bloomed, and Elizabeth truly hoped that the heat would began to fade soon. She was desperately looking forward to the bitter chills everyone kept threatening her with. It was irritating to work and live in the shadows of the snow-capped Rocky Mountains and be drenched in her own sweat.

She felt like she was swimming through the air as she put Dusty through his last work out of the day, just a normal run to keep him loose and limber. It would break her heart when Jason proclaimed him ready to sell to the next owner. Would he let her help? Maybe she could choose—

“You look flushed,” Johnny told her, his own face florid from the heat. “I’ll finish up with him. You go get some water—”

Elizabeth sighed, and looked towards the corner of the yard where Jason was working with another horse, and Cameron was perched on the fence railing. Jason had hired two more deputies and had cut back to only three days in town these days which was wonderful for all of them. She smiled at the familiar sight, and twisted back to look at Johnny to agree to his suggestion—

But then her vision grayed and her knees dropped out from beneath her. She hit the ground with a grunt and a thud, her head lolling back in the dirt—only the dim vision of Dusty’s black hoofs rearing up and Jason and Johnny’s shouts mixed with Cameron screaming before the world went black.

December 29, 2022

Updated: Invisible Strings – Part 12

Glad so many of you remember this story 🙂 And for those of you who didn’t, hope you were able to catch up. Already mourning the end of winter break, and I still have four full days left, lol. No chance of a winter storm to lengthen it — we’re in the 50s and even 60s next week. New Jersey weather is wild!

I took care of a bunch of housekeeping things:

  • Updated the status in the sidebar.
  • Added Counting Stars to the header image. I have to update the others.
  • Fixed the spacing there.
  • Removed Mad World updated and added Counting Stars.

I still have to update my Recent Updates page and add content to the Counting Stars subsite. Really hope you guys are enjoying this. I’m sure a lot of people read it during the alpha and beta draft rounds at Patreon, which I definitely appreciate, but I do miss hearing from you guys on which parts you liked. I guess I’m greedy 😉

I’m making some great progress at planning Fool Me Twice, Book 2. Around 35 chapters have been planned (which is, uh, half the story — we should all glad I’m breaking into smaller releases or you’d never read it) and 11 of them are soundtracked. I’ll start drafting on January 1 with an aim of finishing that first draft at the end of the month. I know that’s a short deadline, but that’s one of the reasons I broke it into smaller pieces.

See you tomorrow!

This entry is part 12 of 22 in the Flash Fiction: Invisible Strings

Written in 68 minutes. Turns out I didn’t know a lot of about horses so I had to do a little Google searching

Elizabeth trailed reluctantly after Jason into the stables, a bit apprehensive at being so close with the horses. Outside of carriages back home and the wagon ride from the heart of town to the ranch, Elizabeth had little to do with the animals—and even then, there had been grooms and stableboys to handle all of that.

But Lila had offered her an opportunity to plan the next town assembly, her first real act as Jason’s wife and a member of a prominent family—a role she had been raised to fulfull, she thought later, and that meant traveling back and forth to town often. She couldn’t expect Jason to cart her back and forth all the time or to hire someone to take care of her.

Jason might have money and come from a socially advantaged family, but things were different out here, and Elizabeth was determined to do what was needed—

Even if that meant learning how to guide a horse out of his stall and hooking him up to a wagon, then driving that wagon by herself the several miles into town.

“The road is well-marked,” Jason told her as he went down the aisle in the stables, six stalls on either side and a tack room in the back where the saddles and equipment was stored. Not every stall had a horse inside, but there were six or seven of them—their heads hanging out over the stall door.

Jason stopped at the first—one that she recognized as the one he rode out every time he went into town. He smiled, brushing his fingers over the long head and brown coat. He looked back at Elizabeth, still hanging back. “Come here—”

“He’s awfully big,” she murmured even as she forced herself to take a step forward. The horse’s head was twice as large as hers—no, probably four times, but he had lovely deep brown eyes and an obvious affection for his owner, batting his head at Jason’s shoulder. “What’s his name? I’ve never asked.”

“Teddy,” Jason answered, and her brows raised. “I named him when I was six,” he offered. “When he was born.”

“Oh. I didn’t—” Elizabeth lifted her hand and reluctantly laid it on the side of the horse’s head. “It’s like velvet,” she murmured, stroking. Teddy turned his attention from his owner to the new person, a soft sound escaping, not terribly different from the way Cameron murmured when she rubbed his back. She smiled. “I didn’t realize horses lived that long, honestly.”

“Teddy’s twenty, and in his senior years.” Jason’s mouth tightened. “They can live longer than thirty years, but it’s not always typical. He doesn’t know he’s old yet. Still runs like a foal—” He exhaled slowly. “But I was thinking of a mare for you. I know you don’t know how to ride—we’ll have to take care of that after the thaw next spring, it’s too hot to learn properly now—”

“I took a few lessons as a child, but there wasn’t…” Elizabeth shifted as they left Teddy’s stall and went down to where a light-colored horse rested in the next stall. “But there wasn’t much of a reason to keep going, I guess. Ladies didn’t really ride for fun where I grew up, and certainly not for travel—”

“This is Ruby,” Jason said. “A palomino. Gentle. She’s not a carriage horse,” he added, “and I—” He hesitated. “She was my sister’s horse. After…we sold off a lot of family’s horses we kept in town, but I couldn’t—”

“No, of course not.” Elizabeth’s heart ached as she watched the grief roll through him. It wasn’t the first time she’d watched it sneak up on him, and she thought maybe Teddy had been named for the grandfather lost—hadn’t his name been Edward? “I’d be honored to learn to ride on Ruby.”

Her attention was drawn by a bang and some thudding in the back. Jason hissed as he turned just as a horse reared in his stall and kicked at the door. It held firm, but shook—Elizabeth stepped back, her eyes wide.

“Johnny, what the hell—” Jason bit out as he strode away from Elizabeth towards the stable hand in front of the stall.

“Can’t get that bastard to settle,” Johnny O’Brien said with a grimace. He spat onto the ground next to him. “Should let him run out into the paddock. Work off some of that energy—”

“You’ve been saying that for a week,” Jason retorted, as the horse reared again. “Why the hell did we buy him?”

“Because old man Coleman was an asshole who was killing it,” Johnny offered with as a shrug. “Pardon,” he said absently as Elizabeth came up behind Jason—but kept some distance, her gaze trained on the bucking, nearly wild horse in the stall. His coat was dark, nearly a glossy black, the mane of almost matching hair—and panicked, crazed eyes.

“Elizabeth,” Jason began with a wince. “Maybe we should do this another day—”

“He looks so scared,” she said almost more to herself. “What happened to him?”

“Last owner liked the whip. Wants to see him win some races—”

“Races—” Elizabeth blinked, looked at Jason. “I didn’t realize that races were popular out here.”

“Not the same way they are back in East or in Europe, but there’s a market for racehorses.” Jason sighed. “But Coleman was heavy on the whip after Dusty lost.”

“Dusty?” Elizabet wrinkled her name. “That’s a terrible name. For him, anyway,” she added. And then she stepped around Jason, drawing a step closer to the stallion. “That’s like naming your dog Rabbit. He’s beautiful, you know. Should have named him Thunder or Lightening. Something to match—”

“Elizabeth—” Jason began, but then something strange happened. Dusty stopped bucking against the door, turned his long head towards the new voice. He whinnied.

“Oh, he’s one of those,” Johnny said with a scowl. “Sucker for a lady’s voice—” And jumped back when the horse made a motion at the stable hand that could only be described as scowling. “Do it again, missus.”

“Do what?” Elizabeth said.

“Talk. You got that fancy voice—”

“Johnny—” Jason began.

“Fancy?” Elizabeth echoed. “I wouldn’t describe it that way, but I suppose I have a bit of an accent—” Then closed her mouth as Dusty once again settled. Her eyes were wide. “Did I do that?”

“Here—” Johnny shoved a discarded newspaper into her hands. “Just read it out loud.”

“All right—” She glanced down at the small print. “Taxpayers are reminded that only fifteen days remain in which they can pay their taxes without costs. It is better to take advantage of of the heavy discount—”

“I’ll be damned,” Jason murmured as she continued reading and Dusty’s entire demeanor changed. The horse settled down, and slowly his heaving sides returned to normal, steady, rises and falls.

“It’s like he’s looking at me,” Elizabeth said, folding the newspaper. She handed it to Johnny, stepped closer, lifting her hand to gently rest it on the side of Dusty’s head. The horse’s ears flicked and there was soft whinny.

“Uh, do you know anything about working horses?” Johnny wanted to know. “Because I’m thinking that me and Jase can’t sound like that.”

“No,” Elizabeth said, continuing to stroke the smooth, glossy coat. “No,” she repeated, but looked at Jason. “But I could learn, couldn’t I? Women can do that.”

“Yeah.” He smiled at her. “Yeah, you could learn to do that.”

Elizabeth beamed, then looked back at the stallion. Maybe she could make a place for herself here on ranch, too. “I don’t want to wait until spring to learn how to ride.”

The July sun was high above them, but Jason was content to stand in the middle of the paddock, watching with a mixture of pride and bewilderment as Elizabeth held a leading string attached to Dusty, the wild stallion who refused to let anyone else work with him except his wife.

Two weeks into putting her to work in the stables, Elizabeth took to horses like she’d been born to it — and the stallion had fallen in love with her—would follow her anywhere, Jason thought. She’d still have to learn to ride on Ruby, he reflected, but there was no way he was putting Dusty back on the racing circuit when the only human he seemed to be interested in was Elizabeth.

“All right, he needs to wind down and take some water—” Jason began, but Elizabeth seemed a step head ahead of him, tugging on the lead to have Dusty slowing down. Then she led him over to the trough of water where he drank thirstily.

Elizabeth patted the horse at the shoulder, careful to keep away from his rear—the first lesson he’d taught her. “He’s doing such a great job, isn’t he?”

“Better than the entire first week he spent here. Should have brought you out to the stables on day one.” Jason folded his arms, studied her. Her brown hair was tied up in some sort of twist, with tendrils sticking to her cheeks and neck with sweat from the heat of the summer day. The shirtwaist had begun the day as white but was now streaked with dirt and damp in areas from more sweat. Her fair skin was bright red, a streak of mud slashing across a cheek, her blue eyes sparkling.

He’d never seen a woman who looked more beautiful.

“I wish we could do something for the whip scars,” Elizabeth murmured, touching the spots gently on the side of Dusty’s belly. “He didn’t deserve any of this.”

“No. But they’ll be a memory of how far he’s come. That’s all scars are, really—”

She glanced down to her hands, ungloved with dirt staining her nails, the missing tip of her index finger with its own snaky thin white scars in her skin. Elizabeth met his eyes, then smiled again. “Just a mark of where he’s been, right? Nothing more.”

“Nothing more.” He leaned down and captured her mouth with his. When he drew back, her cheeks flushed for a new reason, Jason saw Alice coming down from the house, Cameron skipping alongside. They reached the paddock fence, Cameron’s eyes wide at the sight of the horse.

“He woke up from a nap,” Alice said, lifting Cameron up a step so he stood on the bottom rung of the fence. “Wanted his parents.”

“Hey—” Jason lifted the little boy into his arms and over the fence. Elizabeth bit her lip, glancing nervously at the horse. Dusty was warming up to Jason because he was always with her, but would the horse sense the fragileness of the child?

“Big horse.” Cameron wrapped arms tightly around Jason’s neck. “Big.”

“Big, but not scary.” Jason stroked Cameron’s back. “Watch Mama.”

Elizabeth touched Dusty’s head, scratching just beneath his ears, and the horse made a happy sound, exhaling almost like a sigh of delight. “Come try,” she told her son. Jason came closer and laid Cameron’s hand just beneath Elizabeth’s. To his relief and Cameron’s excitement, the horse just leaned into the little boy’s touch.

“Soft,” Cameron said. “Can I ride?”

“Oh, no. Not yet. Not this one,” Elizabeth said.

“No, you’ll learn on a pony,” Jason said, tightening his arms slightly around the little boy as he thought of how often he’d been thrown while learning to ride. How he’d broken bones—then he relaxed and smiled at Cameron—at his son. “But you’ll learn. Just like Mama.”

“Oh, good.” Cameron leaned his head against Jason’s shoulder. “Horse smells, Papa.” His nose wrinkled up. “Oh, big smell.”

Elizabeth clapped a hand over her nose, stepping away from the stallion as Jason grinned. Elizabeth still hadn’t learned how to handle the, uh, less delicate areas of working with horses—there were no chamber pots or outhouses.

“You wanna learn how to do take care of that?” Jason added, nodding to the large pile that had dropped from the horse’s rear.

Elizabeth made a face. “No. I really don’t.”

He shook his head. “Go put him back in the stall,” he told Elizabeth. “Cameron and I will take care of it.”

“We will?” Cameron asked dubiously as Elizabeth happily led the stallion away, grateful to be given reprieve. “Bad smell, Papa,” he informed Jason as he was set on his feet as soon as Dusty was out of the paddock.

“Part of the job. You want to learn how to ride a horse one day, you need to learn how to care for them.” It was going to be fun, Jason decided, teaching his family how to live out on the ranch. He could hardly wait.

This entry is part 11 of 22 in the Flash Fiction: Invisible Strings

Written in 58 minutes.

Cameron nearly fell asleep at the dinner table that evening, his head listing to the side until he gave up and put his head on his arms. Elizabeth would have been mortified by his manners but she was a bit tired herself, and Jason only seemed to laugh and lift the little  boy in his arms.

“I’ll take him up,” Jason told her as she rushed to her feet. “You finish eating—”

“Oh, I’m done,” Elizabeth assured him, a bit uncertain at the quick change in her husband’s demeanor. Jason had spent so little time with Cameron, though he’d been unfailingly kind and gentle with the little boy. Today, anyone observing the two of them might have mistaken Jason for Cameron’s father. Right now, Cameron was tucked into Jason’s arms, his head cradled against Jason’s shoulder, looking every inch the warm and loving parent.

Was it just for the day? Jason had promised them one day a week, but what about all the rest of them? And the promised dog? Things were changing so very quickly and she didn’t know how to manage all the emotions swirling inside.

“I can tuck him in if you carry him,” Elizabeth offered, following Jason towards the stairwell, her hands fluttering uselessly. Did she think she expected him to do this? Oh, she was trying so hard not to make any demands on him—

“I can do it. I should do it.” Jason paused, turned back to look at her. “Unless you don’t want me to.”

“Oh, no.” She chewed on her bottom lip. “It’s just that I don’t want you to think you have to—”

“I don’t,” Jason assured her, and then disappeared up the stairs. If she followed him, would that make him angry, she wondered? Or would he think she didn’t trust him with her son?

She did, though that felt like a foolish decision. No more foolish than traveling across the country, then marrying a man who hadn’t sent for her in the first place, she reminded herself. She’d trusted Jason with her own life and happiness—and Cameron’s. If he wanted to hurt either of them, he’d have done so all ready.

Oh, she was getting herself worked up and worried over nothing, Elizabeth decided, irritated with herself. She returned to the dining room to stare at her half-eaten food, her stomach lurching at the thought of finishing her meal.

“Are you done, darling?” Alice asked, bustling in to gather up the dirty dishes from Cameron and Jason’s places. “Did Mister Jason take the young master up to sleep?”

“Yes. Yes.” Elizabeth flashed the housekeeper a quick smile, who had been nothing but kind and warm to them both. “He all but fell asleep at the table. I’m so sorry he didn’t each much—”

“Boy eats like a horse at every other meal,” Alice said, her good-natured smile causing Elizabeth’s own to deepen and feel more genuine. “And I saw what a good time he had today. All tuckered out.”

“Yes, Jason was very kind to spend so much with him today,” Elizabeth said. She picked up her fork and pushed at a piece of meat. “Thank you for all that you do for him. You’ve been just as wonderful—”

“He makes it easy,” the housekeeper replied. “You’ve done well with him, Missus, if you don’t mind me saying so. And he’s come into Mister Jason’s life just at the right time. My boy needs some light and laughter in his life.”  Her expression dimmed. “We all do.”

Elizabeth’s breath caught at the reminder that the boisterous woman had lost much in the cholera epidemic that had swept through the town and decimated Jason’s family. He’d told her Alice had lost her own. “He’s always kept my spirits high. I’ve been most fortunate. Being his mother has been a blessing when I’ve needed it most.”

“Children will do that to you,” Alice said, stacking her own. “My boy, Ryan—” Her voice faltered. “He had a wicked smile and a set of dimples. Couldn’t stay angry with him. He was going to be a doctor, you know. Had it all set to head to San Francisco for the schooling. Mister Edward was going to pay for it.”

“Oh, Alice—”

“Good that I had Mister Jason to look out for after all of that,” she said briskly, shifting the conversation back. “He spent so much time worried over his grandmother and that cousin—I moved out here to make sure someone worried over him.” Alice’s smile returned. “And now he’ll be looked after, too. You’ll take care of him, won’t you?”

“I will,” Elizabeth said, though not entirely sure how to keep that promise.


Jason laid Cameron into the bed, carefully to lay his head against the pillow. Then unlaced the shoes and removed his stockings. It wouldn’t do much harm to sleep in his clothes, Jason decided. He found the rag doll on the table next to the bed and laid him in the crook of Cameron’s elbow.

Elizabeth had looked so surprised when Jason had offered to put her son to bed, another note of his failure to do more. He’d promised to look after Cameron as his own, hadn’t he? Jason perched on the edge of the bed, watching as the boy’s chest rose steadily, his breathing remaining even and deep.  That was the promise Dillon had made in those wretched letters, the promise that had lured Elizabeth away from the world she’d known her whole life and travel across the country.

And Cameron was easy to like. He had a brash smile, a sunny nature, and was so grateful for every morsel of attention that Jason wanted to give him more.

But looking at the sleeping child brought back other feelings. Other memories that Jason had wanted to remain buried. It wasn’t Cameron or his mother’s fault that the little  boy had the same sunny blond hair that Michael had. Or that, at the age of four, he was the age Michael would have been if he’d lived. Or that this room, with the smaller bed, had once been Michael’s.

None of that was Cameron or Elizabeth’s responsibility, only Jason’s burden to manage.

Today, when Cameron had gone beneath the water, sputtering, Jason’s heart had leapt, started to race in his chest, even as he’d forced himself to laugh and drag Cameron back to the surface. Little boys were fragile. Children were fragile. They sickened easily.

Jason exhaled softly, then turned down the lamp on the side table. He’d loved his nephew every day of the two years they’d been given with him. More any other loss they suffered, Michael’s had lingered in his thoughts. His tiny body had been so wracked with the disease, and he hadn’t truly understood what was happening to him. He wasn’t old enough to be told, to take medicine—he hadn’t even been old enough to know that he wouldn’t live. On his last day, with his last words, Michael had wanted to go outside and play.

Jason ruffled Cameron’s soft hair, then rose to his feet. He’d thought of becoming a father after Michael’s birth, of having a child of his own that would be with him all the time, but after losing the little boy, for all that he’d promised his grandmother—he hadn’t looked to start his own family very hard. He hadn’t wanted to let anyone else in his life.

He left the room and found Elizabeth at the top of the stairs, her hand resting on the carved knob on the railing. “He’s still asleep if you want to look in on him.”

“No, I—” Elizabeth met him in the middle of the hallway, her gaze searching his. “Thank you. For today. He’ll remember it forever.”

Jason’s chest tightened. He didn’t like the way her words sounded, though he knew she meant them genuinely. They sounded so…temporary. “I hope he won’t,” he said, his tone more rough than he meant. Her eyes widened. “I hope he’ll have so many days like it that one won’t stand out.” And that Cameron would have so many days in a long, well-lived life, that one hot summer day spent in the lake wouldn’t even rank.

Elizabeth smiled, and his heart leapt, because she understood what he’d meant. “I wish for the same. For his happiness to be so complete and constant that he won’t have to cling to one moment, but all of them. Then I thank you for myself. I’ll remember it always.”

Jason nodded. That was better. “So will I.” He rest his hands at her waist, drawing her against him. “It was good out there on the lake. The three of us,” he added. “I felt—” He cleared his throat. “Like we were a family. For the first time.”

“So did I. I’ve felt quite married,” Elizabeth added, and he knew her cheeks were flushing, and he grinned at that. “But it wasn’t the same as feeling…” She squinted. “Connected. I don’t know if that quite make sense—”

“It does.” He slid one of his arms around her waist and turned her in the direction of their bedroom.

“I want you to know that your happiness is important to me,” Elizabeth blurted out, stopping at the doorway to the room, standing in the middle of it. Her eyes were wide. “You’ve given so much to me, to Cameron. Our lives are so different, so much better,” she hurried to add. “And I am very grateful—”

Jason grimaced, and her expression. “I only meant—”

“I know what you meant.” And Jason didn’t hold it against her. He only wished he could see inside of her mind. To know exactly where gratitude stopped and affection, if it existed, began. “I am happy,” he said instead, because he could think of no good way to ask someone, even his own wife, if she cared for him. He leaned down to brush his mouth against hers. “I promise you.”

A few days later, after completing his work at the jail, Jason went to his grandmother’s house.

“Hello, darling.” Lila beamed as Jason kissed her cheek. “I haven’t seen you in a few weeks. I hope that means you and Elizabeth have quite settled.” Her eyes narrowed. “Even though your cousin says you’ve mostly kept your terrible schedule here in town—”

“That’s one of the reasons I’ve come by,” Jason told her, squeezing her hands. “I want to spend more time at the ranch so I’ve already informed the council I won’t be standing for another term. And they’ve agreed to hire another deputy so that I can take more time now. I’ve promised a day a week, but I want more.”

“Oh.” Lila brightened. “Well, that’s quite all right. You have your family to care for, just as I wanted for you. And you’ll bring them dinner on Sundays.” She paused. “Just like before.”

Before the cholera. Jason had come every Sunday after church for the meal, to spend time with his grandparents, parents, and sister Emily. And if AJ and his wife were in San Francisco, he’d taken Michael back to the ranch for a few days to make sure someone was taking care of him.

It would never be like before. After the disease had nearly taken everyone, Jason had moved in for a while and then stopped by every day after he’d gone back to the ranch, once he’d been appointed sheriff.  The last few weeks had been longest time he’d spent away from his grandmother in years.

“Just like before,” Jason said, because it was what Lila wanted to hear. “I wanted to ask you for some ideas for Elizabeth. She hasn’t said much to me, but I know she’s been restless during the days and even when I’m back on the ranch, there will still be work to tend to. I’d like her to feel part of the family. There are some responsibilities I know you’ve wanted to ease back on.”

“What a lovely idea, and so very thoughtful of you.” Lila patted Jason’s hand. “I’ll bring it up at dinner. Oh, I had Dillon put together some toys to take out to the ranch, some things from the nursery that might be appropriate for Cameron—”

From the nursery. Michael’s toys. Jason shook his head. “No,” he said abruptly, not wanting one more thing that belonged to his nephew at the ranch. He wanted Cameron to have his own things without memories tied to them. “No,” he repeated more gently when his grandmother looked upset. “He’ll need them for the visits here,” he reminded her. “You want him to come often, don’t you?”

“Oh.” Lila brightened. “Of course. When Elizabeth comes to town, she can leave him with me. You’re always so thoughtful, my dear.”

That wasn’t true at all, but Jason didn’t want to press it. He made promises to being Elizabeth and Cameron for the next Sunday, then went home a few hours before the sun dipped down, before supper would be served, surprising Elizabeth by offering to show Cameron some of the basics of fishing that very evening.

He’d never taken Michael fishing, Jason thought, as his stepson skipped down the path towards the pier and the lake. This would be one more thing that belonged just to Cameron. To his children, Jason decided, as Cameron shot him a sunny smile, his blue eyes dancing with excitement. It was time to get on with his life and make new memories.

December 26, 2022

Update Link: Begin with Chapter 21

I’m so excited for you guys to read this week’s update! Chapters 21 & 22 took FOREVER to write — I got stuck on them for two weeks because they had to be just right, but once I wrote the Jason scene in Chapter 21, a lot came together. They were added in revisions — it’s insane for me to think of the story without them now.

Happy Holidays! I hope everyone is having a great couple of days 🙂 I took the first two days of my break for relaxing, catching up with sleep and holiday stuff.

Very sorry for the problems with last week’s update — I schedule the chapters in advance, and Chapters 17 & 18 didn’t post on time, which not only messed everything up, it also put the chapters out of order with the chapters listing. Super frustrating — but it’s fixed now. I didn’t schedule the chapters this week and just posted them one at a time. I’m going to look into the problem to make sure it’s not a normal thing.

I’m hoping to come back today later and begin a daily flash fiction post for the winter break, but my plumbing backed up again and my dad’s coming up to look at it. Not really sure what the rest of my day looks like, so definitely — starting tomorrow, I’ll be updating Invisible Strings daily until Monday, January 2 since it’s more of a sweet, straight forward romance, better suited for the holidays than the serial killer one, lol.

This entry is part 24 of 37 in the Counting Stars

Memories are just where you laid them
Drag the waters ’til the depths give up their dead
What did you expect to find?
Was there something you left behind?
Don’t you remember anything I said when I said

Don’t fall away and leave me to myself
Don’t fall away
And leave love bleedin’ in my hands, in my hands again
Leave love bleedin’ in my hands, in my hands
Love lies bleedin’

Hemorrhage (In My Hands), Fuel

Thursday, May 4, 2000

Corinthos Penthouse: Living Room

Sonny set down a carry-on suitcase, then crossed over to the coffee bar to pour himself a cup. He’d be leaving for Portland in a few hours, and before he landed, he needed to figure out what to say to Jason that would fix everything.

He’d tried apologizing, but that hadn’t worked. He’d tried explaining himself. That had also failed. And then, he’d tried ignoring everything, and that had failed miserably. Maybe Jason would appreciate that Sonny had dealt with Carly—or maybe he’d be furious that Sonny had interfered again—

“I have a few things for you to sign—” Alexis held the door open, waited for him to focus on her. “If you still want the property downtown. I can file it while you’re gone.”

“Yeah, okay.” Sonny crossed to the desk, set down his cup. “I don’t know how long — I figure maybe a day or two.”

“You think you’ll be able to smooth things over that quickly?” Alexis asked with an arch of her brow.

No, but two days would probably be long enough before Jason lost his patience and asked him to get out—Sonny closed his eyes, tightened his grip around the pen. He was Sonny damned Corinthos. He wasn’t some silly teenaged boy looking for a girl to like him back.

“I think Elizabeth is probably nervous about Jason coming home when he wasn’t able to stay before,” Sonny said. “So he’s going to say what he needs to make her feel better—”

“You don’t think Jason wants to actually resolve things and move on?” Alexis tipped her head. “Maybe he’s nervous about coming home, too. It’s not like he’ll be able to pick up and just leave again. If he and Elizabeth have the baby here, it’ll be a circus. Clearing the air with you will make it easier.”

“Yeah. Maybe.” But Sonny didn’t want to fool himself. He hoped that some time and distance would allow for Jason move past that night in December. He didn’t expect forgiveness. Not anymore. He just wanted some peace of mind, and he’d hoped to find it on this trip. “What do you need me to sign?”

Kelly’s: Dining Room

Emily took a seat at the counter and flipped over a teacup. “When did you start working the breakfast shift?” she teased Bobbie who just smirked and poured boiling water into Emily’s cup.

“Since Penny had to duck out, and we haven’t found anyone to replace Elizabeth long term. I like pitching in sometimes,” Bobbie continued. “It reminds me of being back in Florida with Ruby, waiting tables.”

Emily stirred sugar into her tea. “Have you heard from Elizabeth the last few days?”

“Not since she didn’t come home with Luke and Laura.” Bobbie took a deep breath. “I’m hoping that’s good news. She and Jason have a lot to work out.”

Emily’s eyes widened. “You know where she went?”

“I’m not an idiot,” Bobbie said, but smiled. “But even if I hadn’t guessed, Luke told me. He didn’t say why.” She raised her brows. “Do you know?”

“Uh…yeah, but it’s the kind of thing Elizabeth would want to tell you herself.”

“I’ll have to take your word for it. Have you heard from her since she went out there?”

“Yeah, once. She really only calls when they’re in the hotel. They sound good.” Emily made a face. “She said she might not be home for a few more weeks, but I was thinking—maybe not even then, you know? There’s no reason she has to come back.”

“No, I suppose not.”

“And I can go see them where they end up.”

“But you’d rather she were here.” Bobbie glanced behind her, and Emily twisted to find Carly coming into the diner, taking a table with Michael and AJ along with a crowd of dock workers who’d just completed the overnight shift.  “If she doesn’t come back, maybe it’s for the best.”

“Yeah, anything that keeps Jason away from her is good in my book. I just wish I didn’t have to lose my best friend in the process—”

“That’s strange,” a new voice said, and Emily looked back again, surprised to see Nikolas standing there. She looked back at Bobbie who grimaced. She hadn’t noticed him either among the dock workers. “I thought your best friend was with you. In New York.” He tipped his head. “Because that’s what you told me.”

“Nikolas—” Emily took a deep breath. “Look, it’s not like I planned to lie to you—Elizabeth didn’t want anyone to know where she was and if I’d told you she wanted to keep it quiet, you’d have been angry about it.”

“So you chose to lie?” Nikolas demanded. “I don’t know why it surprises me. You’re just like her, you know? You’ve both been lying for months. I thought we were friends, Emily. We were friends before you ever met Elizabeth—”

Emily twisted on her stool. “Don’t do this, Nikolas. Come on—”

“Maybe I’m the only one who’s been living in a fantasy world, thinking that I had friends who cared about me—”

“You do—” Emily slid off the stool, went to grab his arm. “Come on, let’s go somewhere. Let’s just talk—”

“No, no. I’m done talking. I waited for her to come to me,” he said, his teeth clenched. “I waited for her to trust me with the truth, and she just lied. You and I both know where she is. She’s with him and you’re all lying to me about it, to everyone—”

Her eyes widened, darted around the diner. Oh, God. “Nikolas—”

“But maybe she’s ashamed, huh? Getting knocked up by a guy who cares so little about her that she couldn’t even find him—”

“What?” Carly demanded, from her table as AJ just winced. “What the hell are you talking about?”

Emily yanked on Nikolas’s sleeve. “This is not what friends do—”

“No, friends also don’t lie, do they?” Nikolas yanked his arm out of her grasp. “She’s been doing it for months, why not keep going? Did she tell you she was pregnant? That she had to drag my mother and Luke across the country because she couldn’t find Jason on her own?”

“Carly—” AJ hissed as Carly left their table and stalked towards the duo.

“What is he talking about?” Carly growled. “Who’s pregnant? What—”

“Nikolas—” Emily began.

“Elizabeth,” Nikolas said, his eyes locked on Emily even as he answered Carly’s question. “Looks like Jason’s finally going to have a kid he doesn’t have to steal.”

Emily put her head in her hands as more than one table around them began whispering in a hush. She saw several cell phones come out—

“It’s time you left,” Bobbie declared, coming up behind Emily. “Now.”

“With pleasure.” Nikolas stormed out. A moment later, AJ dumped a few bills on the table, picked Michael up and left. Carly scowled but hurried after them before she was abandoned at the diner.

“Oh my God—” Emily moaned. Bobbie grabbed her arm and dragged her back towards the kitchen. “Oh, Liz is going to kill me—”

“No, she’s not. She’s not here. Right now, she’s three thousand miles away,” Bobbie told her. “So I’m going to call Laura. We’re going to do damage control—”

“Damage control? Bobbie, I have to call Liz and warn her—” Stricken, Emily focused on Bobbie. “And you didn’t even know—”

“No, I didn’t—but I’m not angry, sweetheart. It’s all right. Let me call Laura, and you can call Liz. This is probably the best way for the truth to explode—when they’re not in the state.”

“I guess,” Emily said dubiously, watching as Bobbie pulled out a phone.

Portland International Airport: Arrivals

Jason reflexively tightened his hand around Elizabeth’s as Sonny emerged from the baggage claim area. He was alone without any guards, a large carry-on bag looped over his shoulder. He’d spent four days wondering what he’d feel when he saw his former friend and partner again.

Speaking to him on the phone hadn’t been so bad, but in person — in person it was easier to remember how that night had felt. The searing pain in his side, the way everything had twisted when Carly sauntered down the stairs, the dress shirt haphazardly buttoned—

Sonny sitting in the chair, looking away from him, drinking.

Every time they had been in the same room since then had felt like torture, like swimming against the current, and the last time—

“This isn’t a test, you know,” Elizabeth murmured at his side. “No one is saying if you fail, you don’t get to go back home. That not what this is, right? We’re just visiting on neutral ground. If it doesn’t work out, Sonny can go back home tomorrow, and we’ll go on our trip and figure out the next step.”

It was tempting to take her up on that offer, to just keep driving away from all his problems. He’d done that before she’d shown up. But it hadn’t fixed anything, and it wasn’t a real solution.

“Jason.” Sonny stopped in front of them, flashing a hesitant smile at Elizabeth, but it faded nearly as quickly as it appeared. Maybe he’d been remembering the last time he’d been friendly to Elizabeth in front of Jason. “Elizabeth. How are you feeling?”

“Good. Jason and I drove in from the coast yesterday,” she said, tucked a piece of hair behind her ear. “Um—” The phone vibrated against her hip, and she pulled it out.

“That’s the second time since we got here. You’d better answer it,” Jason said.

“It’s Emily again. I’ll just tell her we’ll call her later.” Elizabeth put the phone to her ear and took a few steps away, leaving Jason and Sonny in awkward silence.

“Things are, um, okay? I mean, it’s not my business,” Sonny said, glancing after Elizabeth. “I was just worried after—”

“I know. Things are fine—” Jason’s voice faded when the color faded from Elizabeth’s cheeks. She focused on him, her eyes wide. Quickly, Jason closed the distance between them. “What is it?”

“It’s, um—” Wordlessly Elizabeth shoved the phone at Jason. “I can’t—”

Sonny was there, taking the phone from Jason as he put an arm around Elizabeth’s waist and steered her over to a bench. “Look at me. Hey—” He cupped her jaw in one hand, squeezing her hand with the other. “Elizabeth.”

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I just—” She squeezed her eyes shut. “She said it, and I just—lost my breath, and then I couldn’t catch it again.”

Sonny came over, handed them a closed phone. “It’s out,” he said shortly and Jason stared at him, unsure what he meant. “Nikolas Cassadine announced it in the middle of the lunch shift at Kelly’s. Everyone knows about the baby.”

Wyndemere: Conservatory

Stefan tossed aside the paper when the doors blew open and Laura stalked in, her face pale and her eyes burning. “Laura,” he said cautiously. “I know you’re angry—”

“Where is he?”

“He’s down at the stables, but—” Stefan put up a hand to block her before she could head out the garden doors. “We should talk about this first.”

“Talk about what?” Laura lifted her brows. “Do you know what he did, Stefan?”

“He told me he had an argument with Emily at Kelly’s, and as a result, revealed some sensitive information Elizabeth might have wished to keep secret.” Stefan blocked her forward advance again. “He’s hurting, Laura—”

Laura took a deep breath. “And you’re protecting him. Just like you have for months—”

“He’s had a difficult year—”

“I know that, and I have tried to be understanding but he refuses to see reason—” Laura curled her hand into a fist. “I know that everything with Katherine on top of losing Lucky has made things difficult. But it’s not an excuse how he’s been acting, for what he’s said and done for months—”

“So, you’re going to what?” Stefan arched a slim brow. “Confront him? Chastise him? He’ll just see you as choosing yet another person over him. You’ve done it all his life, why stop now?”

Laura’s eyes burned. “That is not fair, Stefan, and you damn well know it. I did the best I could. What I was capable of. Just as you did. And I am not choosing Elizabeth over him—”

“You came all the way to the island so that you could yell at him about what he’s done. Do you think he’s not ashamed already?”

“I will not have him blaming his childhood and the fact that I wasn’t there for the rest of his life. I am done with the guilt trips. Now—get out of my way.”

Quartermaine Estate: Hallway

Carly stepped out of Michael’s room, leaving the toddler with his nanny, then grimaced when AJ’s hand slid around her forearm, just below the elbow. “Hey—”

“Shut up,” her husband hissed, steering her around the corner into their bedroom. He released her so suddenly that it felt almost like a shove, and she stumbled. The door slammed behind her, and Carly whirled.

“What is your—”

“That—” AJ held up a finger, his eyes dark and swirling, “is the last time you humiliate me in public—”

Carly bristled. “I didn’t—”

“It is none of your business what my brother does,” AJ bit out. “And you have no right to demand answers about a relationship and pregnancy that have nothing to do with you—”

A shiver slid down Carly’s spine as she swallowed hard. Would Sonny see this as a violation of their deal? “I didn’t—” She cleared her throat, put up her hands. “I didn’t mean—it wasn’t—I was just upset—”

“Why?” AJ demanded flatly. “I’m your husband. Jason is nothing to you. He’s moving on. He’s having a family with someone else—”

“The hell he is—”

“Shut up!” AJ roared and it was so unexpected that Carly fell silent, closing her mouth. “I’m done! That’s it!” He started across the room, and Carly realized with a start he was heading for the phone.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m done with this. I’m done being runner-up—” AJ jerked the phone off the base and jabbed in a number. “I’m calling my lawyer—”

“No, no, no—” Carly leapt across the room, grappled with him for the phone. “No!” If AJ filed for divorce now, everyone would think it was because of Jason—because of Kelly’s—and she couldn’t be sure Sonny wouldn’t send those photos just to be an asshole— “Please—”

AJ slowly set the phone back down and looked at her, his expression hard and unyielding. “This is the last warning, Carly. You and I both know that if I file for divorce, I will destroy you. I will keep you in court until your bones are dust, and there is no one coming to save you.”

Carly’s hands were shaking as she held them up. She wanted to deny it, wanted to believe that if AJ really went after her but Jason was gone. He’d cut her out.

“I know.” Carly squeezed her eyes shut, tears stinging as her voice broke. “I know! I screwed everything up and now we’re all miserable! I won’t do it again. Okay? I’m done. It’s over.”

AJ shook his head and disgust and left the bedroom, the door slamming so hard in his wake that it shook the frame. Carly sank onto the edge of the bed. She’d reached the end of the road. No more cards left to play.

Wyndemere: Stables

Nikolas ran a brush through Sheba’s mane, enjoying the quiet, the peace of the stables. To be away from everything that had happened that morning.

He hadn’t meant to say anything about the pregnancy. Not when he’d arrived. He’d hoped to spend some time with Emily, to resolve some of the anger burning at his gut. But then he’d overheard them talking about Elizabeth—

And it was clear that his mother wasn’t the only person Elizabeth had trusted. Emily knew. And they’d all cut him out. He squeezed his eyes closed, wishing when he opened them again, he could have turned back time. That he could be back at Kelly’s that last night, to stop his brother from burning those candles—

“How could you?”

Nikolas turned towards the entrance of the stable and forced his features into a blank expression as he studied his mother. “Are you here to tell me what a bad boy I’ve been?”

“Any chance of Elizabeth ever trusting you again is gone. You understand that, don’t you?”

“She started the lying, not me.” Months ago. She’d told him she wasn’t ready to move on from Lucky after her birthday, but it had been a lie. She didn’t want him. No more than his own mother did.

“Did it ever occur to you that Elizabeth wouldn’t have seen it as a lie?” Laura’s footsteps approached him, and he focused on her. “She told me, Emily, and Jason. Luke and Sonny know because we had to find Jason. But that’s it. She had every right to hold on to this as long as she could. Some women don’t say anything for months—”

“Some women aren’t supposed to be your friends. She could have trusted me—”

“And you proved so worthy of that last Christmas,” Laura said. “When you told the world she was dating Jason.”

“Not dating,” Nikolas bit out. “He had her hidden in the studio like a dirty secret.” Nikolas wouldn’t have treated her that way — he would have given her the world. Not anymore. That was done.

“Oh, so it’s concern for her that had you telling the world she was pregnant. Just like concern made you announce her sex life—”

“It doesn’t bother you at all, does it?” Nikolas bit out. “She’s out there acting like Lucky never existed! It’s what you’re all doing—”

“I’m acting like my life didn’t end last year,” Laura corrected. “It didn’t. I went on breathing, Nikolas, as hard as it was to imagine for a time. And Elizabeth went on living. She fell in love again.”

“Yeah, well, I don’t get to find another brother—” He closed his eyes as the pain sliced again. He hadn’t really had his brother at all and now everyone treated Lucky like he was a burden that had to be endured. “She’s going to get herself killed, and if that’s not enough, she’s dragging another innocent life into this. Why am I the only one who sees it? How many lives does Jason Morgan get to destroy? Lucky wasn’t enough?”

“If you’re not ready to let Lucky rest in peace, I can’t help you. But Elizabeth is still part of my family—I’m not choosing her over you, but you are wrong for what you’re doing. And I’m not going to pretend that you’re not. You don’t have to like her choices, but they are hers to make. Leave her alone,” Laura warned. “You’re only making yourself miserable and you’re pushing everyone else away.”

Nikolas scowled as she left. He was only miserable because no one could see what was happening. He’d just have to show them.

Portland, Oregon

New Imperial Hotel

“I’m really okay,” Elizabeth told Jason again as he paced the length of their room. She turned to Sonny, seated beside on the sofa. “It was just—I was upset. Bobbie didn’t know, and that’s not the way I wanted her to find out—”

“Maybe you should see a doctor.” Jason sat on the edge of the bed. “You still look pale—”

“Anxiety attacks will do that.” Sonny straightened when Jason sent him a dark glare. “I’m sorry. Look, her pulse is good. She’s not cramping. She got some bad news and reacted. I could tell you to relax, but it’s not going to work.” He sent Elizabeth a reassuring smile. “Welcome to the next eight months of your life.”

“I’m fine,” Elizabeth said, and this time she saw Jason’s expression ease. “I’d rather we talk about what we’re going to do about this.”

“Actually—” Sonny got to his feet. “Not that my opinion really matters, but this — this is not the worst way for people to find out. You’re not in town for people to scream at,” he told Jason. “So, no extra pressure on Elizabeth. You’ve been gone long enough that, uh, people aren’t all that interested in you.”

Elizabeth knew what that meant — men in Sonny’s business likely wouldn’t care. “Did Emily say who else was there?”

“Carly and AJ,” Sonny said, and Jason tensed. “I don’t know much more than that. I’ll call Alexis and find out more. You guys take a minute.”

He went to the door that adjoined the rooms and closed it behind him. Jason took his seat on the sofa.

“I feel like an idiot for getting all upset,” Elizabeth said, with a grimace. “And I haven’t had a panic attack in over a year.” She took his hands, waited for him to meet her eyes. “I really am okay.”

“I just—” He cleared his throat. “Sonny’s got a point. Everyone finding out when we’re not there—it’s a little easier.”

“Yeah. I just don’t understand how Nikolas knew—and Bobbie—I meant to tell her, there just never seemed to be a good time—” Elizabeth shook her head. “I hate it.”

“Call her and talk it out.” Jason leaned over to grab the cell phone they’d dumped on the table. “You know she loves you. It’ll be okay.”

“Yeah.” She snuggled up to his side and he put an arm around her shoulders. “She’ll probably want to hear from you, too.”

“I’m not going anywhere.”

This entry is part 23 of 37 in the Counting Stars

I know I can’t survive
Another night away from you
You’re the reason I go on
And now I need to live the truth

Right now, there’s no better time
From this fear I will break free
And I’ll live again with love
And no, they can’t take that away from me

I Surrender, Celine Dion

Friday, April 28, 2000

Cabin: Bedroom

Jason didn’t dream, so he didn’t have nightmares. But if he did, he imagined it might feel like this moment, standing in front of Elizabeth with his ridiculous collection of discarded postcards surrounding her.

How had she found them—why—

He should have just kept walking towards the pizzeria instead of coming back, frustrated by the continued tension between them—maybe she would have just put them back and never brought them up—

“Our bags look the same,” she said softly. She got to her feet, her cheeks flushed. She held one of the cards in her hand. “I didn’t mean to find them.”

“I—” Jason swallowed. “You told me to stop sending them,” he managed. “Not that I had to stop writing them.”

“Did you—” She stared down at the one she held, and he recognized one he’d written in South Dakota. The first one he’d grabbed after returning from Port Charles. “Did you mean what you wrote?”

He didn’t have to ask what she meant. “Yeah,” Jason managed, because maybe this wasn’t a disaster. “I—”

“‘I think about you every day’,” she read softly, her voice trembling. “‘What it felt like to hold you again, to wake up next to you. I wish I could give you more—'” Elizabeth looked at him. “You just stopped. In the middle of the sentence.”

“I couldn’t send it to you.” He shoved his hands in his pockets. “I told myself to stop. That it was just making it worse. I thought if I stopped, I wouldn’t think about you so much.” He managed a half smile. “It didn’t work.”

“You wrote…nearly every day—” Her voice trembled. “Every day.”

“I told you—”

“But—” She held the postcard against herself. “You really did it.”

Did she think he’d lied? “Yes—”

“I thought—” Elizabeth said, taking a step towards him. “When I didn’t hear from you, when it was just those few postcards—it hurt. Like you didn’t miss me—or maybe, if you did, it wasn’t the way I missed you.” She swallowed hard, her eyes locked on his. “Maybe you just missed your friend. And then those postcards came, and they didn’t say anything. Nothing real. So I didn’t know. And you came back, and it was like you hadn’t left—but you went away again. And everyone always leaves—”

“I had to go,” Jason forced out. “I didn’t want to—”

“You would have stayed,” she interrupted. “I didn’t believe you then. Not really. But—” Her fingers trembling, she looked at the postcard in her hands. “You would have. For me.”

“I’d do anything for you,” he confessed, and her head snapped back up, and there was something about the look in her eyes that made everything else easier to say. “Yeah, I missed my friend. I missed you. And everything we’d been together. And all the things we never got to be. I don’t want to go back to how things used to be. I want to go forward. With you.”

Elizabeth closed the distance between them and before he understood what she was going to do, she wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him.

He froze for a second—not understanding how any of this had happened—how he had left the room, sure that everything he did was completely wrong—and now she was in his arms—Jason dragged her closer, sliding his hands into hair—he’d missed how silky it felt in his fingers and how good she felt pressed against him—

The postcard she held in her hands fell to the ground as Jason backed her up to the wall, and she shoved his jacket off his shoulders, sliding her hands under his shirt, dragging it up and over his head. One of her legs wrapped around his waist—he cupped her thigh, urging it up so he could lift her. He nearly stumbled as he moved blindly towards the bed, but managed to get there, nearly unable to believe his good fortune that despite everything—

Everything he wanted in the world was right here in front of him—if he could just hold on to it.

“I’ll never leave you again,” he murmured, smoothing her hair away from her face. “I’m right where I want to be.”

She could hear the ocean gently crashing outside the window. The sun had begun to set in the horizon, casting the room into shadows. Elizabeth curled up next to Jason, the sheets twisted, and comforter pushed down towards the foot of the bed. Both their bags had been shoved off the bed, and the postcards were scattered on the bed and on the floor.

She slid in and out of a light doze, lulled into dreams by the soft stroke of Jason’s fingers against her skin, dancing up and down her spine. Whatever happened next, she knew they could handle anything.

“I think it’s because of my parents,” she said, then frowned, unsure where the words or thought had come from. His fingers stilled for a moment, then continued. “Mostly my mom.”

“What is?” he asked gently.

“Why I’m…” She bit her lip, then sat up, tugging the sheet under her arms. “Why I didn’t want you to just jump on a plane and come home.”

Jason slid one hand under his head, the elbow cocked out on the pillow as he looked up at her, his expression still questioning. “Your mother.”

“I told you about the fellowship she turned down because she got pregnant with me. The thing is—” Elizabeth bit her lip. “She didn’t want me. Or Sarah. It was Dad who wanted more kids. They planned Sarah. I was an accident. Dad didn’t want her to have an abortion, so she kept me. And gave up the fellowship. I don’t think she ever thought I was worth the sacrifice.”

“She’s wrong—”

“She gets to feel however she wants, I guess. She was never cruel to me, and I had what I needed mostly. They were only supposed to be away a year. Mom got the invitation to join Doctors Without Borders, and she told Dad they could do it now. Sarah only had a year left of high school, and Steven had left for college. They were almost free. Dad didn’t want to go, but she said he’d promised her that he’d never make her give up her career again for the kids. So they left for Europe, sent Sarah to stay with Gram, and dropped me off at the neighbors.” Elizabeth met his eyes. “She changed her whole life for me, Jason. She gave up her dreams and what she wanted because she loved my dad. I guess I was scared you’d go home before you were ready, and you’d be unhappy again. Just like she was. I know that’s not fair to you—”

Jason reached up to tug her back down and drew her close, pressing his lips to her forehead. “You just wanted me to be sure. I’m sorry about your mother. It’s her loss.”

“I haven’t spoken to her since she left. Dad called a lot that first year. But not so much after…” She closed her eyes. “Gram told them about the rape. Dad wanted me to come to Europe, but I couldn’t. Then Sarah left for college—” She paused. “Anyway. I’m sorry. I kept picking fights because I was scared. I didn’t want you to come home because of the baby. And I didn’t really believe you could still want me.” She smiled. “But you did.”

They fell into silence again, the sun sinking lower and the room growing darker. She nearly slipped back into that space between dreams and waking, so warm and comfortable—and then her stomach rumbled.

“We should get something to eat,” he murmured, his voice drowsy. He slid his hand up to her belly, still flat. Gently, he pushed her onto her back so that he could press his mouth just above her belly button.

Elizabeth shivered from the sensation, and he propped himself up on his elbow. “It’s hard to believe,” she admitted, “that there’s a baby in there.” Though they’d talked about it before, it felt different this time. It felt real. Or maybe it was that they felt like a team. Like a couple who had just learned they were having a child.

“I know,” Jason said. He traced a pattern, his fingertips making her twitch. It was a little ticklish. “You look the same.”

“I feel mostly the same,” she said. “But I know that’ll start changing soon.”

Jason sat up all the way up. “I’ll go get a pizza or something. It’s better than nothing,” he said. “You need to eat.”

“I am hungry,” she admitted. She snagged his elbow as he started to move away. “I’ve been so scared this week,” Elizabeth said, “but I’m not anymore. This is—it’s so big, and I didn’t know if you’d feel trapped or obligated. I didn’t want that. But I think—” She bit her lip, and he waited for her to gather her thoughts. “I think I’m happy. Excited. And—I hope you are, too.”

“I am—” Jason leaned forward to brush his mouth against hers. “Terrified,” he murmured, stroking her cheek. “Overwhelmed. But happy. That you’re here, and that this—” His other hand covered her belly again. “This little grain of rice or poppy seed is with us. I don’t know what tomorrow looks like. I just know I want to spend it with you.”

Sunday, April 30, 2000

General Hospital: Conference Room

“I was hoping to catch you before you left—”

Nikolas shoved the last of the folders and paperwork into his briefcase, then closed it. He leveled a cool stare at his mother as Laura stood in the doorway. “I’m not sure we have anything else to say to each other—”

“You haven’t returned a single phone call since we spoke last week—” Laura held up her hands as Nikolas approached her. “Please.”

He stopped, then lifted a brow. “All right. Go ahead. Say what you came to say—”

“When you left last week, you seemed to think that neither Bobbie or I had considered the risks in Elizabeth pursuing a relationship with Jason,” Laura said. Nikolas’s jaw clenched, and he looked away. “I have. And it worries me, Nikolas. It does. I wasn’t here when you were injured, but when I learned of it later, it horrified me. I’d nearly lost Lucky to that life—”

“You did lose him—”

“I respect that you believe the fire was due to Sonny and Jason. I don’t, but I’m not going to talk you out of it,” Laura said, and he closed his mouth. “I’m speaking of what I do know. I lived the majority of my life under the threat of Frank Smith finding me. Or the Cassadines,” she admitted. “When I think of Elizabeth living that way—”

“Then how can you support her? How can you let her think this is okay?” he bit out.

“What’s the alternative?” Laura wanted to know. “Audrey tried to give her an ultimatum, and Elizabeth moved out. She’s not speaking to you, Nikolas, because you didn’t support her. Am I supposed to cut her out, too?” She paused. “I’ve already lost Lucky. I may not have chosen this life for Elizabeth, but all I can do now is love her and make sure she has what she needs to be happy.”

“It’s not enough—” Nikolas gritted his teeth. “It’s not—”

“You’re only making yourself miserable if you continue to be antagonistic—”

“You and Bobbie and Emily can sit around and let Elizabeth make the same choices that you did. As Lucky did. You’ve chosen to think that Jason and Sonny are good men—”

“Nothing is black and white—” Laura stopped when Nikolas walked past her. “Nikolas—”

“I won’t stand by and blindly support Elizabeth as she betrays everything my brother died for. You and Bobbie can do what you want. Don’t expect me to play nice.”

Monday, May 1, 2000

Cape Meares State Scenic Viewpoint

“I told you it would be worth it,” Elizabeth said, leaning over the edge of the guardrail. He winced and braced a hand at the small of her back. “I wish we had binoculars. The guide said we could see gray whales—” She looked down at the brochure, studying it.

“We can always come back,” Jason offered, amused by her enthusiasm. “Or check the gift shop—” He paused when her jacket began to ring.

“Maybe.” She fished in her pocket for the cell phone Luke had left her, grimacing. “It’s Laura.”

“You can take the call—”

“No, I’ll let it go to voicemail. I’ll call her when we get to the hotel tonight.” She put the phone back in her pocket, but the expression she’d made when she’d seen Laura’s name stayed with him.

“Why didn’t you want to talk to her now?”

“Nothing—” Elizabeth sighed. “The last time I talked to her, she asked about putting my mail on hold. Right now, she’s picking it up for me. And she’s watching my grandmother’s cat.”

Jason exhaled, looked back out over the water. Elizabeth had put her entire life on hold to come out here, to tell him about the baby. And while they were finally on the same page in most ways, they still hadn’t really tackled the decision to return to Port Charles. She had to go back. Of course she did.

“It’s fine,” Elizabeth said. “I’ll ask her to take care of the mail, and Gatsby is fine at her place—”

“Or we could go back,” he cut in. “We can’t keep putting this off,” Jason pressed when she just looked at him. “I know you wanted time—”

“You needed it, too,” she argued. “Or have you changed your mind? Are you ready to go home?”

Jason put his hand at her elbow to keep her facing him. “I don’t know. Maybe. If we go back and it’s not okay—if things are still tense with Sonny or—” He paused. “I don’t know. I know Carly’s still an issue. But I don’t think she can hurt me the way she did before.”

Elizabeth still looked torn, and while he wanted to be frustrated by her hesitation, he knew she was only thinking of how bad it had been before he left and how he’d talked about it on the beach earlier that week. She wanted to protect him and was trying to put him first.

That didn’t happen to him very often. Or ever. He held out his hand. “Let me see the phone.”

Elizabeth frowned but handed it over. “Why?”

“I’m going to call Sonny.” He had a plan. Or at least the beginning of a plan. If he could handle Sonny, that meant he could handle the job. And Elizabeth could be in Port Charles where she was happy. She’d be near the hospital with doctors—

Carly was a different kind of hurdle to deal with, and he really wouldn’t know until he was face to face with her what to expect.

“You really don’t have to do this—”


“Sonny,” Jason said, squeezing Elizabeth’s hand to show her he was okay. He could see the worry in her eyes, the lines in her forehead crinkling. “It’s me.”

“Jason. Uh, hey. How are you? Is—are you okay?”

“I’m good. Elizabeth and I are still in Oregon.” He looked out over the ocean, thought about how to really fix this. “She said you helped track me down. Thank you.”

“Oh, well, I didn’t do much, but I’m glad it worked out. Hope she’s having a good time.”

“Yeah, she is. We both are. Uh—” Jason winced. “Listen. There are things. We should talk about them.”

“Yeah, yeah. Of course.”

“I—I’m not coming to Port Charles yet. I thought maybe you could come out here. Meet us in Portland for a few days. So we could talk.”

There was a long pause, and then Sonny answered. “Sure. Let me move some things around. Can—maybe there’s a number I could call.”

“Yeah, hold on—” He held the phone out to her. “Can you give him the number of this phone? I don’t know it.”

“Sure.” Elizabeth reeled off the numbers, then hung up the phone. “You really didn’t have to—”

“It’s better if we do this on neutral ground,” Jason told her. “Maybe away from Port Charles, it’ll be easier.” He paused, looked out over the horizon again, then met her eyes. “If it’s okay, we’ll go back—”

“I have a counter offer. Sonny comes here and you guys can sort things out. And then—” Elizabeth grasped the lapels of his jacket, leaned up to kiss him. “You wanted to go to California, right? I was looking at the brochures last night. I saw one for the Pacific Coast Highway. We could do it in two, maybe three weeks.”

He kissed her again, lingering. “Are you sure?”

“It’ll be fun. You’ll talk to Sonny, and then we’ll go. By the end of it, you might feel even better about going home. You might feel sort of okay now, and maybe seeing Sonny will help. But I still think we should wait a bit longer.” She laid her hand against his chest. “I heard you on the beach, Jason. I listened to you. You didn’t feel ready to go back.”

“That was before—” He took one of her curls, wrapped it around his finger. “I didn’t know I still had you.”

She softened. “You always had me. Still, I want to take this trip. It’ll be fun. Plus, we won’t be able to just take off on these kinds of things after the baby, you know? So we should do it while we can.”

“When you put it that way.” He laced his fingers through hers. “Come on, let’s go to the gift shop and see if we can get some binoculars. Now that you mentioned the whales, I want to see them, too.”

Lincoln City, Oregon

Starfish Manor Hotel

“Oh, this is so much better than last night,” Elizabeth said, breathing a sigh of relief as she came into the room with the large picture window overlooking the ocean. “Did you know there was a Jacuzzi?”

Jason tossed their bags on the bed and eyed the tub at the end the room by the window. “No—” But he was definitely interested.

Elizabeth started to dig through her bag, wincing. “We need to find a laundromat,” she said. “I’m almost out of clothes.”

“I’ll ask the lobby tomorrow.” Jason picked up the room service menu. “We’re only two hours out of Portland,” he told her, “so I was thinking we’d stay in the area. When Sonny can come, we won’t have to backtrack.”

Elizabeth was already inspecting the controls on the hot tub. “Sounds good. Oh—” She dug in her pocket for the phone vibrating against her hip. “Hey, Laura. No, I saw your call earlier. We just got to the hotel.” She grinned. “Oh, hey, this isn’t a window—it’s a door to the balcony,” she called back to Jason.

He watched her go out and curl up on the chairs, continuing the phone conversation. He ordered some dinner, then called down to the lobby to ask about the laundromat. She’d been with him more than a week, and Jason already couldn’t fathom how he’d filled his days before she’d joined him. Now that they were finally on the same page—that they were actually together—he couldn’t imagine going on without her.

Everything was better now that she was here, and he was determined to keep it that way. He’d make sure this visit with Sonny went well so that it would be one less obstacle to return to Port Charles.

Carly would always be a thorn in his side, but it didn’t sting the way it had even a few weeks ago. Would that change when he got to Port Charles? Maybe. But—

“Hey.” Elizabeth came back in, leaning against the door frame. “You okay?”

“Yeah.” He hung up the phone. “I am. How’s Laura?”

“Good. I told her I was going to be gone longer, and she said she’d take care of my mail. She wanted to know if it was okay to give Em the number, so I did.” Elizabeth tipped her head to the side. “Is it okay? You left without giving us any way to reach you, and I’ve basically ruined that—”

“I thought it had to be that way,” he told her. He reached for her hand, drew her against him, still marveling at the way they fit together. “That if I cut the ties, it would make it easier.” He brushed the back of his knuckles down her cheek, and she smiled. “I was wrong.”

“I wish I’d come with you back then,” she said with a sigh. “But maybe it was supposed to be this way. I was able to find some peace with Gram. And I got this job—”

“I thought I’d be better off alone. I’m not. I wouldn’t have known that if you’d come with me in January. Or even last month. Things happen for a reason.” He kissed her, tightening his hold on her. “I ordered room service,” he murmured. “We can try out the hot tub later.”

“Sounds like an excellent plan.”

This entry is part 22 of 37 in the Counting Stars

I think I’m dyin’ nursing patience
It can wait one night
I’d give it all away if you give me one last try
We’ll live happily ever trapped if you just save my life
Run and tell the angels that everything’s alright

Learn to Fly, Foo Fighters

Friday, April 28, 2000

Ocean Inn: Room

They stayed in Manzanita for a week, a choice that puzzled Elizabeth even as she repacked her duffel bag while Jason took a shower. The area was beautiful, and she liked that their suite felt like a small home — one of the ways to reassure Jason that they were just fine outside of Port Charles was to go to the grocery store and stock the kitchenette with fresh food. Jason knew how to cook better than she did, but she could heat up leftovers better than anyone else.

It had been like living together in the studio again with a bit more space, a better view, and an actual bathroom they didn’t share with the rest of the floor. But it wasn’t really like living together, Elizabeth thought. She folded a shirt and tucked it inside the bag, then reached for the art supplies. They’d slept in the same bed, but he hadn’t touched her. And she hadn’t pushed either, she reminded herself.

She probably could have. Just reached for him one night—hadn’t she made the first move in January? And last month? Elizabeth zipped the duffel closed. It was probably for the best that they weren’t—

“I was looking at the map—”

Elizabeth turned, startled. Jason stood in the doorway, between the bathroom and bedroom, a toothbrush in his hand. He wore a pair of jeans but hadn’t yet pulled on a shirt. Some of the drops from the shower still glistened on his chest. Her fingers tightened around the strap of the duffel. “The map?” she managed.

“Yeah.” Jason tossed the toothbrush into the sink and stepped into the bedroom—she saw then that he held an Oregon atlas in his hand. “I was thinking we could go to Tillamook.”

“Tillamook—” Elizabeth drew her brows together. She remembered the name from the planning she’d done in case Jason hadn’t been in Astoria. “That’s not too far away.”

“Only about an hour—” He stopped when she came closer and tugged the atlas from him. “What?”

She stared at the map, swallowing hard as she looked at the page. Tillamook wasn’t just an hour away from Manzanita. It was also still close to Portland. That didn’t have to mean anything, she told herself. Portland was huge and most places were within a few hours of it. But—

“Didn’t you say you wanted to go to California?” Elizabeth’s fingers dug into the edges of the book. “We’ll never make it if you only go thirty miles every week—” She flipped a page. “We could make Crescent City tonight—”

“That’s nearly eight hours—” Jason frowned. “What’s wrong with taking our time?”

“Nothing.” Elizabeth shoved the atlas back at him, already irritated with herself for picking the fight. Why did she keep doing that? Even after Sunday, when he’d walked on the beach, and they’d had that conversation about not pushing each other, about giving time. If Jason wanted to explore every little dinky town on the Oregon coast, it wasn’t her trip to criticize—she’d invited herself along.

But she didn’t know how to stop picking at him, how to stop analyzing every single thing he said and did, looking for a hint that he didn’t want her, that he was unhappy—just a few days ago, he’d suggested she try out some fish and she’d snapped at him that she could take care of the baby without him controlling her diet—

“Tillamook is fine,” she said finally. “I don’t remember reading a lot about it—”

“You’ve been getting nauseous if we’re on the bike for too long,” Jason said, and she looked at him. He had set the atlas on the dresser. “Twice this week, we were out longer than an hour. I just wanted to make it easier for you. And I’m not in a hurry to get to California.”

She sat on the edge of the bed. “I’m sorry. I didn’t think about that—” She nearly retorted out that all he ever thought about was the baby, like she didn’t matter, but she bit that back before it spilled out. Tears pricked her eyes. What a terrible thing to think and nearly accuse him of—what was wrong with her?

She pressed her hands to her face, digging her palms into her eyes so hard she saw stars. “I’m sorry. I guess I’m just a little…I don’t know. You’re right. We’d never make that kind of drive today.” Elizabeth looked at him. “Thank you. For thinking about it. I don’t know why I didn’t.”

“You don’t have to apologize. I just wish you’d tell me what’s really wrong.” With that, Jason tugged on a shirt and went back to the bathroom to pack his razor and anything else he’d left in there.

There was no way she was going to do that, Elizabeth thought darkly. Not when she had no bloody clue what was really wrong. Jason had been nothing but wonderful since that night on the beach, and she’d been a bitch. He’d ripped open a vein for her, and all Elizabeth could do was criticize everything he did and look for the worst-case scenario.

Maybe it really was the fear that he was subconsciously keeping them close to Portland, a few hours away from an airport. Maybe Jason didn’t even realize it. But was it because he thought she was going to leave? Or did he want her to go? And was she, like always, spinning fantasies in her own head?

It was probably neither of those things. Jason was right. She’d had some trouble with longer bike rides, and if they didn’t take things slowly, she’d get sick. It was perfectly rational to accept that as an explanation.

Determined to do exactly that, Elizabeth got to her feet and finished packing.

Port Charles, New York

Luke’s: Bar

The interior of the club was gaudy and overdone, but Sonny still loved the hell out of it. He remembered the first time he’d stepped inside, just before opening night. Luke had been proud of the design—it had looked exactly like his vision.

Sonny had pulled out of the club a year earlier after Lucky’s death, but he missed it like he missed Luke’s friendship. There were few people more loyal than Luke Spencer.

Sonny had a way of shoving loyal people out the door. Today—today was going to try to at least return the loyalty Jason had showed him over and over again by creating a safe place to return.

Carly scowled as she sat down. “Why the hell did you pick this spot?” she demanded.

Sonny leaned forward. “Because I didn’t think you’d want your husband to overhear this conversation.” He nodded to Claude. “A bourbon for me. She’s not staying.”

Carly waited for the bartender to serve the drink and disappear into the back. “You got a lot of nerve summoning me like I belong to you,” she began.

Sonny picked up the tumbler with one hand and with the other, he slid a sheaf of papers across the bar. “Take a look at these.”

“What—” Carly’s mouth fell open as she snatched the papers up, her fingers digging in, wrinkling the pages. “How the hell did you get this? This is confidential—”

“That’s not the question you should be asking.” Sonny sipped the liquor. “You should be asking me,” he continued, “What do I intend to do with them?”

Carly’s brown eyes seared into him. “All right. What are you going to do?” she bit out.

“Nothing.” She scoffed and Sonny shrugged. “As long as you do exactly as I say, I’ll forget I ever saw them.”

“Why the hell should I believe you?”

Sonny dismissed that question. “It’s simple, Carly. Jason will be returning at some point in the next few months.” Maybe sooner. Maybe later. But eventually, Jason would come back with Elizabeth. “And when he does, you’re going to steer clear of him. You’ll leave the room when he comes in. You’ll make sure he never has to hear your voice again.”

Carly’s glare was scathing. “You have no right—”

“If you bother him, if you so much as cause him an ounce of distress—” Sonny paused to slide over a manila envelope. “I’ll have these delivered to your husband.”

Carly’s face went white, and she grabbed the envelope. She ripped it open and dumped out the photos. “What—” They were black and white, a bit grainy. But clear. A photograph of her entering Sonny’s penthouse, time stamped November 30, 1999. Another of an open door as Jason, with Carly in the edge of the frame—just enough of her figure to see that she was scantily clad. It was timestamped almost an hour after she’d gone in. Her fingers started to tremble as she went to the last photo — her exit nearly ten minutes later, her hair disheveled and she was rushing.

“It’s not perfect proof,” Sonny said, “but I think it’ll be enough. AJ’s keeping you around because you’re not a terrible mother, but he knew you’d cheat. He thought it’d be with his brother, but you were smart. You knew about this clause.” Sonny tapped the page of the prenuptial agreement he’d had Benny dig up. “Evidence of infidelity means AJ gets to walk away with primary custody of Michael, and you don’t get a single cent.”

Carly exhaled slowly. “You wouldn’t do this. It would upset Michael, and Jason would hate that—”

“That’s a risk I’m willing to take. But I don’t think you are.” Sonny sipped the bourbon. “It’s a simple deal, Carly. Keep your country club life, your son, and your access to the Quartermaines. Leave Jason alone. He doesn’t want you. I don’t know how much clearer he can make it than he did on the day on the docks when you used Michael against him for the last time.”

Carly looked at the photographs again, then up at Sonny. “A bit of a security risk to have a camera on your own door. It’d be a shame if someone used that against you.”

“I want you to remember something,” Sonny said, leaning in, his voice going very quiet. Carly’s eyes widened. “I am a dangerous man. If you think to go against me, then I’ll make AJ’s life even easier. You’ll simply disappear. One day, it’ll be like you were never here.”

Carly swallowed hard. “You wouldn’t hurt a woman—”

“Not personally, no.” He grinned, his dimples winking, but his eyes remained cold. “But you can hire people for that sort of thing.”

“My mother—”

“Is already at her limits with you. And you know that, don’t you? Bobbie’s already had to forgive so much. Those photos hit the tabloids—” Sonny nodded at them. “Do you really think anyone will question why you disappear? Do you think anyone will really care?”

Carly exhaled slowly. “I stay away from Jason, and you keep your mouth shut. That’s the deal?”

“That’s the deal.”

“What if Jason doesn’t want it that way?” she demanded. “What if he comes home and he’s forgiven me—”

“In the extremely unlikely event that Jason goes insane and decides to let you back into his life, that’ll be his problem. But as long as he doesn’t want you around, Carly, you stay out. That’s the deal.”

“Fine.” Carly shoved off the stool. “You’ll see. He always forgives me. He just went away to think. He’ll come back and remember that he loves me. That he loves Michael. And I’ll tell him about this. He’ll never forgive you.

Sonny watched her stomp out, then picked up his drink again. “Another risk I’m willing to take.”

“Well, I see you’ve made my niece very unhappy,” Luke said dryly as he appeared from the door behind the bar. He came forward and looked at the pages, the photos Carly had left behind. His quick mind put it all together, and he looked at Sonny. “This why Morgan left?”

“No. Not why. But it’s at the root of how it all went wrong.” Sonny slid it all back into the torn envelope. “You hear from Elizabeth or Jason?”

“No, but Laura has.” Luke poured himself a whiskey. “They’re still in Oregon. Doing a tourist thing, I guess. Laura said Elizabeth sounded all right. Don’t know if or when they’re coming back.” He nodded at the papers. “That part of your plan to smooth the way?”

“Carly’s entire worldview is built around Jason coming back and forgiving her because he loves Michael. She’s not going to like that Jason is creating a new family. One that actually belongs to him and can’t be taken away on a whim,” Sonny bit out. “When that foundation crumbles, Carly is going to lash out. I don’t know if Jason and Elizabeth are coming back soon, but Elizabeth loves Laura too much to stay gone forever. And Jason’s grandmother and sister are still here. I plan to do what I can to make that possible.”

“Well, let’s hope you’ve got Caroline on a leash.” Luke lifted the whiskey to his lips. “I’ve seen her destruction before, and Barbara’s still picking up those pieces. I don’t want to see Liz get hurt.”

“Carly knows the deal. She breaks it, I’ll destroy her world.”

Tillamook, Oregon

Oceanside Ocean Front Cabins: Cabin 22

Jason made some calls once they arrived in town, and he was relieved to find another place to stay with a kitchen. He made a note to look into other places along Highway 101 — if Elizabeth wanted to take more time before they returned to Port Charles, he wanted to be sure that anywhere they went, they wouldn’t be relying on fast food or convenience stores.

He carried their duffel bags into the room, setting them both on the bed, then looked back as Elizabeth came in behind him to look at the view. It wasn’t as close to the beach or nearly as good a view as they’d had before, but it was still close to the water.

He saw Elizabeth turn away from the window to look at the bed. The single double bed. The room wasn’t very large, but now it felt like it was dominated by the bed between them. When he’d made his calls, he hadn’t asked about two beds. He hadn’t done that in Manzanita, either.

Was that why she’d been prickly all week? Why there had been that strange tension that hadn’t dissipated even after they’d cleared some of the air on Sunday? Was Elizabeth angry or uncomfortable that he’d assumed a relationship that she didn’t want—Jason swallowed hard, his fingers falling away from the strap on his duffel. He realized now he’d never considered the fact that maybe Elizabeth didn’t want a future that included him as more than a father to their child.

He’d just assumed—

Jason cleared his throat. “I—I didn’t—I’m sorry. I should have asked for a place with another bed.”

Elizabeth drew her brows together. “What?”

“It’s just—at the last hotel, it didn’t seem to matter—” He needed to stop the words falling out of his mouth. What was he doing? “I just— I thought—”

“You thought what?” Elizabeth asked when he stopped talking. She tipped her head, her eyes quizzical. “I told you, Jason. I’m fine. If I wanted another bed, I’d have asked for—” Some of the color faded from her cheeks “Did you—I mean, do you want another—”

“No!” Jason wanted to cut out his own tongue. Why did everything he said these days feel like the wrong thing? “No. This is fine. I just—”

“This is insane,” Elizabeth muttered, dragging her hands down her cheeks, then through her hair. “We’re just tip-toeing around each other, and every time we talk about anything more than the scenery for more than five minutes, we start arguing. Why?” He saw a shimmer of tears in her eyes. “Why can’t we just go back to how things used to be?”

He nearly told her he didn’t know, but it was a lie. “Because there’s no going back.” Their eyes met. “Because things used to be that we ran into each other sometimes at Kelly’s or on the docks, and we talked. I’d give you a ride home sometimes.”

“In the studio then. When I was taking care of you. We were practically living together—”

“I was hurt,” Jason told her gently. “And you were fighting everyone who walked through the door. Elizabeth—” He paused, but he’d promised himself he wouldn’t lie. He wouldn’t hold back. “You wanted to give us both time to let this sit — but it’s been a week. And every time I bring up the baby, you start an argument.”

She closed her eyes. “I know I do that. I don’t mean to—”

“Even right now you want to turn back the clock to when things were easier. That’s never going to happen. Because it was easier when you were just my friend.” His chest seized. “Or maybe that’s what you want us to do. To just be friends.”

“I didn’t say that—” Her mouth trembled. “I don’t—I don’t know. It’s all so hard. And I just want it to stop. You keep pushing me, and I keep telling you I’m not ready—”

“Fine.” Jason put up a hand and she closed her mouth. “I’ll stop pushing. No matter what I do, I’m wrong.” He raked his hand through his hair. “I’ll go out and find something for dinner.”


“I’ll be back.”

He left her standing in the bedroom, tears staining her cheeks. He was tired of always being wrong, of always feeling like he was going too fast or asking too much. What was the point of her being here if she didn’t want to talk about anything important for more than a few minutes?


She’d done it again. Jason had even given her a perfect opening to talk about their relationship — and Elizabeth had completely blown it and sent him away.


Of course she didn’t want to go back to being just friends. She wanted so much more—she wanted to be with him—just like that night at the penthouse or at the house—she wanted to curl up in his arms and let herself believe it was real—

But it wasn’t real. It couldn’t be. Because as amazing as those nights were, Jason had still left. She’d told him to go—but he’d stayed gone. Had she thought he’d never come back? What had she expected that night in January? She’d all but begged him for a night together like he was going off to war and might never come home.

He’d left her. It didn’t matter that she’d known it was a good idea, or that he’d needed to go. He’d gone. Just like Lucky. Her grandparents. Her parents. Both her siblings. Everyone left her, eventually. Willingly or unwillingly.

And sure, he’d thought about her a few times. Had sent a few postcards. But he’d called Sonny and Emily. He’d found the willpower to stay away and not hear her voice for two months. And he’d still be gone if she hadn’t tracked him down.

The tears slid down her cheeks as she sank onto the bed. He was excited about being a father, but Elizabeth couldn’t trust—couldn’t let herself believe that he was also excited about being back with her, too. This was such a mistake. This entire trip. What had she expected—a few days and he’d declare his undying love?

Elizabeth scrubbed at her face. When he came back, she’d throw in the towel. There was no point in dragging this out. They might as well go back to Port Charles and reality. If he was going to end up resenting her, better to get it over with.

But first she was going to wash her face. She looked at the nearly identical black duffel bags and unzipped the side pouch of the closest to her, expecting to find her toiletry bag—but instead found a stash of postcards. She snatched her hand back, realizing this was Jason’s bag, not hers—but—


She glanced over her shoulder like a guilty child, then pulled the stack out, sitting on the bed as she sorted through them.

Elizabeth frowned at the one on top — from Cannon Beach, a place they’d passed earlier. He’d written her address, but nothing else. There were two other blank ones from the same place. Then from Astoria—where she knew he’d sent that last card.

But here were more from the same place, half written.

I don’t want it to be like this. I don’t want to stop. If I let you go—

But I have to. You deserve more than this. And maybe I do, too. I miss you. I will never stop missing you.

But there’s nothing left to say. I can’t stay, and you can’t go. Nothing has changed in three months.

Her breath caught at the card he hadn’t sent her, then at the rest of the stack. There were cards from South Dakota and Texas, all dated after that trip he’d made to Port Charles. After she’d asked him to stop sending them.

And before that—the cards from Arizona and New Orleans and Miami—for every card he’d sent, there were three or four more he hadn’t. And cards dated from places she hadn’t known about. Two from Alabama, three from Utah—

Most had some sort of message, all variations of how much he missed her, and wished he could come back—

So many places. So many of them half-scribbled one, others with nothing more than her name and a date. Elizabeth tried to put them in order, but she couldn’t—there were three or four for each date—the tears spilling down her cheeks as she realized what these postcards meant.

He’d left Port Charles, but he’d meant it when he said thought about her all the time. Nearly every day. Everywhere he went. Her fingers were shaking as she found another postcard where he’d written about missing her. Thinking about that night and how he’d never wanted it to end.

She heard the door open, and she tried to gather them back in a stack to shove them back into the bag, but Jason was already through the door, in mid-sentence by the time she realized it.

“Hey, I think we need—” He stopped, stared at her. At the postcards in her lap and over the bed. Then back at her.